With new metro mayors in place and new powers for existing ones, English devolution appears to be one of the winners of the Leveling Up white paper. But this new generation of mayors will evolve in a very different economic context from those appointed in 2015. Their mission must be to rethink and reimagine our sub-regional economies in order to build a fairer recovery.
Regional and sub-regional metropolitan mayors (not to be confused with directly elected mayors who cover a local council area, introduced under the previous Labor government) have been touted as a pivot of the so-called ‘devolution revolution’ of the mid-2010s – itself designed to stimulate growth in larger economic geographies. The theory was that new sub-regional levels of governance, led by directly elected mayors, would help galvanize public and private support for new investments. Indicators of success were improvements in productivity and a closing of the gap between London and the rest of the UK.
However, central government expectations that metro mayors would stick to a fairly strict regime of conventional economic approaches, meant that the powers and freedoms vested in them were limited – to deregulation of planning, foreign investment and partnerships – and designed to retain a deliberate role. strategy to attract and retain investment, usually from large global investors.
But at a time of uncertainty – with Covid-19, Brexit and the environmental crisis all looming large in economic consciousness – this approach to economic development falls far short of what is needed today. The pandemic has revealed much about our country’s inequalities, showing that even where there has been economic growth, it has had little impact on the economic and social challenges facing communities.
And now that decentralization deals are finally on the table for more rural and polycentric areas, such as Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire, they will need more flexibility to meet the various challenges facing their businesses, communities and businesses. public services.
Michael Gove has already declared his admiration for the American mayoral system. However, unlike the image depicted above, the mayor of New York is able to use his influence to go much further – mostly because he has the power to do so. Rather than being stuck relying solely on foreign investment from big global players, Bill De Blasio, who left office in December, began building the infrastructure needed to reinvent the economy with the aim of create more long-term equity. At the center of the world’s largest metropolitan area, De Blasio began exploring how to connect residents, especially those on the lowest incomes, to the enormous wealth that already exists.
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The New York City Mayor’s Office has launched a series of projects in neighborhoods across the city, supporting the expansion of worker co-ops, employee ownership and community credit unions, to help officials and communities understand which is possible if you reconnect people to the economy and give them a real stake in the future.
In the UK, while mayors are limited in terms of economic powers, many have used their soft power to tackle some of the challenges in their place. This has included efforts to create new measures around economic prosperity, more pluralistic approaches to economic ownership, and more ambitious thinking about how an urban region’s purchasing power can be used to support development. economy and challenges such as climate change.
To go further in this work and allow new metro mayors to emulate their success, the government must commit to giving them the necessary levers to deviate from the economic status quo. Only this will enable them to address the challenges faced by communities that have borne the brunt of the extraction of economic and social power from their main streets, housing markets and employer bases.
The government has already pledged to free up what it calls EU bureaucracy so that buying power can be used to grow British industry. At the Center for Local Economic Strategies, we have been helping local authorities do just that for over a decade and we know there is already a lot that can – and is – done within the parameters of current legislation. The crucial missing piece is often the realization that public spending can be an active tool to support and shape a progressive economic future. What is needed are economic powers to allow wealth to flow more easily through local economies – for example, greater control over planning powers while giving mayors greater influence over fiscal policy .
Ultimately, the success or failure of English devolution depends on the extent to which central government is willing to let local and combined authorities do the work. Yet even to access the funding to level up, they have to spend their time filling out forms to hunt piecemeal jars of money rather than giving them long-term flexible funding to get on with the job. If the central government continues to dictate the agenda of the Mayors of Westminster, the opportunities for new ideas and innovation to emerge will be stifled.
Merely announcing new mayors and powers will not address the long-term economic challenge of our localities – it will take a long time for decentralization to translate into progress on the ground. Change would come much faster, of course, if the government invested in the work of the local authorities who negotiated the decentralization agreements in the first place. They have the flexibility (but not always the resources and capacity) to deliver. The way councils operate, the services they provide and the way they work with communities set the tone for mayors’ geographies, so their role is crucial in thinking about how we build a more inclusive economy to more long term.
More importantly, in trying to imagine a different kind of economic future, mayors must take inspiration from the citizens who elect them. A commitment to decentralization must go hand in hand with a commitment to new forms of democracy and control at the local level, including citizens’ assemblies and juries. In the current context, political responsibility has never mattered so much.
Sarah Longlands is Managing Director of the Center for Local Economic Strategies, a think tank developing progressive economic policy for local and regional authorities.